Hancock County Profile
By John Melrose
It is no secret that Hancock County contains many attractions that draw travelers to the region. The travel numbers prove the point. County residents comprise only 4.1 percent of Maine’s population but state highways in the county carry 6.15 percent of all traffic off of the interstate. This disproportionate share of traffic means the Hancock County road network is not just locally important, it is of statewide importance. As home to Acadia National Park, Hancock County is of international interest as well.
Particularly of concern for this region are Route 1A in Ellsworth, Route 3 in Bar Harbor, Route 1 in Gouldsboro-Sullivan and Route 15 from Orland to Stonington, among others. With tourism playing such a major role in the local economy, there is a need for funding for completion of the Acadia Gateway Center and acquisition of the Bar Harbor Ferry Terminal.
Hancock County road network
With the county’s high profile role in Maine’s tourism industry, it comes as some surprise that highway conditions in the county are disproportionately deteriorated relative to the rest of the state. As the accompanying chart reveals, priority 1 and 2 highways such as portions of Routes 1, 1-A, 3 and 9 disproportionately fall into the D and F grade category while priority 3 highways, such as Route 15 from Orland to Stonington, often receive an F grade. A remarkable 17.3 percent of all F ratings on Maine’s priority 3 roads occur in Hancock County. The most significant factor driving these poor grades is the high incidence of crashes and the prevalence of unsafe conditions, including narrow travel ways and rutted pavement. There are 88 miles of priority 1, 2 and 3 roads in the county rated D or F for safety. Other issues, including pavement conditions, also contribute to the poor ranking of the region’s state roads.
MaineDOT is poised to act on some of the worst deficiencies. In 2016-17, the department plans an $18 million reconstruction of Route 3 from downtown Bar Harbor heading northwest 4.8 miles. The cost estimate for this project increased by $4 million in the last year. In 2015, MaineDOT expects to reconstruct 1.36 miles of Route 1-A in Ellsworth south of the Union river at a cost of $5.155 million.
In regards to priority 3 highways, MaineDOT in 2014 completed improvements to the Route 46 corridor from Route 3 to Route 1-A. There remains a major concern for the condition of Route 15 from Orland to Stonington. In its most recent work plan, MaineDOT added a 7.44-mile, $4.4 million highway rehabilitation project starting in Blue Hill and heading north for 2015. It also added a preliminary engineering project covering 2 miles just north of the Sedgwick-Blue Hill boundary. Unresolved are the poor conditions on Route 15 in Deer Isle and Stonington. Other needy priority 3 roads include Route 172 heading east out of Blue Hill and Routes 102/198 and 3 on Mount Desert Island.
Priority 1, 2 and 3 highways account for 48 percent of the state highways in Hancock County. For the rest of the state roads in the county, which would be priority 4 and 5 highways, state policy is to perform light capital pavement treatments once every six years on average. More permanent or substantive fixes were abandoned by the Maine Legislature and Governor LePage four years ago when the decision was made to cut the 10-year capital funding gap for highways to $1.5 billion by lowering expectations for priority 4 and 5 highways. Roads in these categories include Routes 186/196 on the Schoodic Peninsula, Routes 184/204 in Lamoine, Routes 179 and 180 connecting Ellsworth to Route 9 and a host of highways on the Blue Hill peninsula.
The decision on priority 4 and 5 highways left MaineDOT’s Municipal Partnership Initiative (MPI) as the only real means left to rehabilitate or reconstruct these roads. Communities in Hancock County have heard this message. MaineDOT’s prior work plan included MPI projects in Ellsworth on Beechland Road, in Southwest Harbor on Route 102, actually a priority 3 highway, and in Tremont on Route 102. The three projects combined carried a price tag of $4.79 million and this year’s work plan includes another Ellsworth MPI project on Route 230 with a price tag of $737,000.
Hancock County also is home to a disproportionate share of Maine’s structurally deficient bridges. Fifteen percent of Maine bridges are rated structurally deficient, and that is worse than for the nation as a whole. In Hancock, 29 percent or 16 of the 56 county bridges 20 feet or longer are structurally deficient. The average age of these structurally deficient bridges is 67. Five of these bridges are addressed in MaineDOT’s current work plan.
There are five functionally obsolete bridges in the county, including the mother of all functionally obsolete structures, the Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge that MaineDOT now refers to as a “forever bridge.” Scheduled in the work plan for 2015 is a $2.34 million substructure rehab project adding to other recent investments intended to preserve this structure forever.
Aviation, marine, transit and trails
Hancock’s other notable transportation services include the county-operated Bar Harbor Airport, one of only five commercial service airports in Maine. Over $3.4 million in investments at the airport are scheduled in MaineDOT’s current three-year work plan. The Maine State Ferry service operates out of Tremont and serves Swan’s Island and Frenchboro. Generally the facilities and vessels are in good condition. The state seeks to broaden its passenger marine transportation assets by acquiring the Bar Harbor Ferry Terminal at a cost to the state of $3.5 million. Three payments are scheduled beginning in 2015.
The county is also home to the Island Explorer, a seasonal bus service designed to accommodate peak demands generated within and around Acadia National Park. With a fleet of roughly 40 buses, the service carried 424,000 passengers in 2013, up from 141,000 since 1999. The planned $12.5 million visitors center on Route 3 in Trenton, to be serviced by the Island Explorer, awaits final construction funding. A $3.8 million FTA grant is anticipated in 2017 for partial construction funding of the Center.
Prominent county bicycle and pedestrian facilities are located within Acadia National Park and on the former Calais Branch rail line. The county’s big deficiency for bicycle and pedestrian use is found in the great lack of adequate paved shoulders throughout much of the county road network, even on Route 1-A in Ellsworth as the accompanying picture reveals.